I remember when the songwriter came into that little hospital, three fingers short on one hand and three extra in the palm of the other, not a tear in his eyes.
“In Japan, they can put ‘em back on, good as new, I hear,” he said hopefully.
“This is Waco,” the doctor replied. “I can sew you up, but I can’t fix you up.”
I asked the songwriter if I could have his severed fingers.
He looked at me—a young nurse, the only black girl working at the hospital at the time—trying to put me together like a puzzle. “What are you gonna do with ‘em?”
“I’m going to put them in a jar and keep them forever.”
He said I could and I did. I kept them. I kept them close.
Years later, when my brother got shot out in Dallas messing around with some bad sorts, I held that jar and thought about loss. I thought about the songwriter, dripping blood on the hospital floor and just letting his lost fingers go without a word of argument, as if he knew it would be okay. It reminded me that I would be okay, and that my brother would be okay, too, in a better place without having to worry about getting money and getting other stuff he didn’t need to get. Now he would get all the love imaginable, and that made all the love a sister could give seem small in comparison.
I eventually gave that love to a man named Dean, who took it and didn’t even care about those green fingers I kept in the cupboard with the peanut butter and jelly jars. He just laughed and called them the old hors de’oevers, which he pronounced so meticulously it almost sounded wrong. We made babies and not a one of them got a grip on this world. I loved them while they were here and so did he, but when they went I let them go as easy as that, without a tear, like that songwriter and his fingers, to a better place.
It was harder when Dean got cancer. I had set myself to loving him so furiously that I breathed better every time he walked through the door of our little apartment. Ten years of that door opening and closing didn’t seem nearly enough. When we walked out that door the last time to go to the hospital, I just knew he wouldn’t be coming back, so I didn’t close the door on my way out. I didn’t want to hear the sound of it shutting, the things it said.
When I returned to that apartment alone, holding back tears for the sight of those old fingers, the place had been robbed and destroyed. I found those green fingers amidst shards of glass on the scratched linoleum and I picked them up and squeezed them so tight all the meat came off and left me clutching three bones. I asked the songwriter, “How can I just let my man go?”
I looked at those finger bones and they seemed so strong, and I knew that I didn’t have a choice. Nobody had a choice in what they got to hold onto, but only in how tightly they held onto what they were given, and I had held onto my Dean so beautifully tight. I remembered that songwriter’s face when I took his fingers, and how he didn’t even look at them, but at his hand and the fingers he still had.
Front page image: “Twisted Half 2,” by Jana Anderson
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